I’m not sure I recall as much media coverage of a decade ending back in 2009. Perhaps the internet hadn’t quite gifted everyone the power of opinion back then, but after beating Chesterfield 2-1 on Boxing Day 2009, the decade of Keith Alexander slipped somewhat quietly out of the back door.
Perhaps it was because we knew the high point of that decade had been and gone: Keith’s four years in charge, plus the play-off assault under John Schofield, hadn’t been built upon. Our decline was evident and whilst we finished the decade in better shape than we started it, the difference was only marginal.
This decade has been different, it has seen lows which had never been experienced and, arguably, highs of the same ilk. When have we ever not qualified for the FA Cup First Round in living memory? When has the FA Trophy seen us beaten by the likes of Carshalton and North Ferriby? Even at the beginning of the decade, that awful season we slipped out of the league, seem unparalleled to new fans. It wasn’t, in fact, it reeked of 1987 when a disenchanted fanbase grew apart from a disinterested team to collective failure.
The finger-pointing will go on throughout history. Everyone from Chris Sutton to Steve Bruce, Steve Tilson to Danny Hylton will take part of the blame and now it can be comfortably debated with the safety net of redemption firmly in hand. Talking about 2011 almost feels positive now, in that had we not been relegated, had we not self-imploded, we wouldn’t be the team we are today.
It’s easy to skip a large part of the decade and go from relegation to the Cowley era, but that would be doing so many fine footballers and even finer people a huge disservice. Of course, finishing in the bottom half of the National League wasn’t a highlight and we suffered humiliating defeats under all of the people I’m going to mention, but I firmly believe that David Holdsworth, Gary Simpson and Chris Moyses all played a strong role in putting us back on track. Holdsworth, rather cruelly selected by Jake as our worst manager of the decade, worked with nothing. He was one minute away from an FA Cup tie with Liverpool and with that influx of cash, maybe things would have been different. Sure, he almost took us down, but looking at York, Stockport, Kidderminster and Halifax, almost is an achievement in itself.
Gary Simpson was backed relatively well and gave us the first proper squad of our own to cherish, but tactically fell a little short. He still gave us that double over Grimsby, something that deserves a mention for the spectacular goals and commitment shown by the squad. I wasn’t a fan on a personal level, but he did bring respectability, to a degree. Chris Moyses brought fans back, his strong city connections helping rebuild a battered and bruised trust level. He signed a few decent players you know too; Matt Rhead, Luke Waterfall, Terry Hawkridge and Jack Muldoon all playing a big role in the success to come.
Over and above all of this, we must not forget the board, staff and Bob Dorrian. They took high levels of abuse after we first came down and Bob, in particular, stood out as a pariah, as though he was preventing something better from coming along. Who can forget the failed EGM, intended to oust him? The rights and wrongs of the demo before the Newport game can be debated for years, but Bob stood firm, pouring his own money into a seemingly dying football club. Without him, there would be no Lincoln City. If we were to herald a ‘Man of the Decade’, he’d be right up there on the list of two contenders.
The other? Clive Nates. When he came in back in December 2015, the storm clouds were forming. Arguably, all the goodwill and intent by Bob wasn’t going to be enough to haul us out of the mire. We needed fresh impetus, a new direction and of course, some money. Clive winged his way into the club and the rest, as they say, is history.
That December also saw a big moment in our playing fortunes; Liam Hearn’s implosion. That really angered me and whilst it will get glossed over in the grand scheme of things, Chris Moyses was done up like a kipper. Hearn was, in my opinion, the most natural finisher we saw at the club in years, probably since Keith’s days and perhaps only surpassed this season by Tyler Walker. Had he remained on point and focused, I think the play-offs were achievable under Chris.
Still, Chris stood aside and in came Danny and Nicky Cowley. The decade ended up being defined by their success. It will always be remembered as the time we broke records and made history. Never before had a Lincoln manager brought three trophies in as many seasons. It had been over a century since a non-league club got to the FA Cup quarter-finals and, let’s face it, is unlikely to be repeated in the modern era. No Lincoln manager had ever walked his team out at Wembley either, although Keith had put us in a major domestic final when the grand old stadium was being redeveloped. Then came the League Two title, almost an anti-climax after a season of domination. It seems so crass to gloss over those achievements in a paragraph or two, but they’re still fresh in the memory, the scars of Danny and Nicky leaving still raw and healing. In ten years, when the dust has settled and everything has calmed down, they’ll be held in the same esteem as Graham Taylor, Colin Murphy, Keith Alexander and Bill Anderson. Rightly so.
That brings us more or less to the present day, a time of change and a period of the unknown. In my time as a fan, all 33 years or so of it, we’ve never been in this position, expected to remain in the third tier and looking forward to stability on and off the field. Michael Appleton has a huge job on his hands, emerging from the previous manager’s achievements to become something in his own right. There is evidence to suggest that he’s on the right track, certainly the recent win against Ipswich, capping off the decade in terms of on the field activity, showed a resilience, attacking flair and definite gameplan. Of course he won’t win three trophies in three years, that won’t be surpassed in your lifetime or mine. It was a glitch in the system, a moment in history that will forever be remembered as a magical time. However, football doesn’t stop. It doesn’t allow for years of self-congratulation or constant looking back; just ask Nottingham Forest. They’re still ‘two-time European Cup Winners’ and yet they’re struggling to become anything other than midtable Championship side. When a manager goes in there he talks of history, of this great club, of Brian Clough and to what end? To remind fans what once was.
That’s not for us. It isn’t disrespectful to move on quickly from the Cowley era; Danny and Nicky are always welcome in my house for a cup of tea and I wouldn’t dream of slandering them online. That doesn’t mean we can keep one foot in the past though and even by putting messages on social media along the lines of ‘who needs Danny Cowley’, you’re feeding into the past like a desperate boyfriend clinging on to the hope his ex sees it and does a u-turn. One day, the truth of their departure will out and hopefully, fans will understand the decision they took and why they took it. Anyhow, that was then, this is now.
As fans, we’ve ‘never had it so good’, at least not in the last 30 years. Playing Ipswich, Sunderland, Bolton and Coventry seems alien to anyone who collected Panini stickers through the eighties and early nineties. We’re mixing it with the big boys and earning the right to stay in this league. Michael Appleton has to win over some fans, others have backed him unconditionally (I for one) based on his record as a coach, his apparent influence on this squad and his persona. As we look back over the last turbulent and exciting decade, the current one rumbles in with challenges and expectations. Will our manager fall into the trap of changing too much this January and bringing in a Tilson effect? Can he successfully manage an aging squads transition to that of an exciting, young and ambitious squad? Can he repeat his Oxford success and bring our first £1m player into the club, selling at profit to take us to the next stage of our history?
The last decade brought heartbreak, joy, agony and ecstasy in equal measure, but as 2009 turned into 2010 the one constant was hope. We’d just beaten Chesterfield, a promotion contender, 2-1 and I had hope for the future, belief that there was a better time around the corner. That’s the same right here; beating Ipswich 5-3 brings us more hope that whatever has been before, the cup run, the trophies, the memories; there could be better around the corner.
Championship football. Big money transfer deals out, exciting young talent in. Maybe, just maybe, another era that will have me furiously slathering at the mouth in exactly ten years from now.
Happy New Year.